When Butler won the 2012 N.C. 4AA state championship a year ago, the Bulldogs did so with a senior-heavy team that featured a handful of prep All-Americans. That team, in my mind, is one of the 10 best to ever come through North Carolina.
But when you graduate 16 starters, 14 of whom are playing college football, and 34 seniors, well, you expect to rebuild the next season. But Butler coach Brian Hales has punted on conventional thinking.
His team, which will play in the state semifinals Friday, returned two starters on offense. No problem. Butler is averaging more than 45 points per game after Friday’s 48-7 win over a West Forsyth team that was the No. 1 overall seed in the N.C. 4AA playoffs. Junior quarterback Anthony Ratliff, who spent a lot of time catching passes from All-American Riley Ferguson last season, has become a star this year. He threw for 178 yards and ran for 80 more in three quarters of work Friday, accounting for three total touchdowns and thoroughly impressing West Forsyth coach Adrian Snow.
“We knew he was talented,” Snow told the Winston-Salem Journal. “We were just hoping we could do a good job containing him, and we didn’t do a very good job of that.... At one time I thought the safety at High Point Central (Germane Pratt) was the best kid in the state, but Ratliff is the best. He can play. He gets out there and gets it done. That’s all you can say.”
Ratliff and Butler got off to a slow start, going 2-2 against a wicked schedule that included games with state powers Mallard Creek, Greensboro Page, Mount Tabor and Richmond Senior. But since then, this young Butler team is 9-1, losing only to Rocky River, which made the state quarterfinals.
“We tell our kids that our No. 1 goal every year is to win the state championship,” said Hales, whose team has won three of the past four championship trophies. “If we were to (change) and lower the goals, it tells the kids that, up front, we don’t think you’re as good as this team that we had or that team. We never look at it as a rebuilding year. We worked awful hard to get our program to where it is.”
“We’re so different than we were the second week of the season when we played Mallard Creek before,” Hales said. “In a lot of ways, we’re a completely different team.”
This will be Mallard Creek’s third straight appearance in the N.C. 4AA Western Regional championship game. It’ll be the first time Mallard Creek has hosted. The Mavericks lost to Butler 27-0 at Memorial Stadium last year and lost 41-27 at Greensboro Page in 2011.
Hales is impressed that the Mavericks keep putting themselves in place to get to the state finals.
“It’s a credit to those guys with what they’ve done as a program over there, and how consistent they are,” Hales said. “I know how long it took us to get to the point where they are now. It seems like they did it in half the time we did, so we’ve got our work cut out for us next week. That’s a dang good football team over there.”